Lucifer's Last Laugh

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Chapter 16: Palamides’ Tale

I devote the next several hours to pursuing my studies in demonology. I am amused by Alphonse de Spina’s 1467 classification of different types of demons including those formed from human semen and the marching demonic hordes that cause wars. Then there was Peter Binsfield who, in 1589, had the gall to equate demons and devils and associate them with the Seven Deadly Sins so that Lucifer corresponds to Pride, Asmodeus to Lust, Belphegor to Sloth and so on. What fools these Jesuits be!*

Far more sensible was Plutarch who believed that demons were intermediate between men and gods (us) and once were men. Pluty almost got it right.

Nothing useful re: Teddy Teawater, however, so I teleport myself to Dusana’s location in Baton Rouge to pick up JoeL. He is mildly less malevolent than before I promised him Madagascar and seems to like Dusana a whole bunch but balks when I tell him we must be off to Paris.

“You think I’m gonna scramble and descramble my atoms with you, you got another drink comin’.”

Just to show him who’s boss, I grab JoeL by the scruff of the neck, wink goodbye to Dusana and transport the two of us to the City of Light.

I arrive on the Isle St. Louis directly behind Notre Dame and deposit a sputtering JoeL on the pavement. At first, nothing seems changed since the sixteenth century. The grand old cathedral looks pretty much the same. But as I stroll around it amid gawking tourists and look across the Seine in both directions, I see that Paris is quite transformed. Mostly for the better, I think. The Paris of what seems like only a few days ago to me was a rabbit warren of narrow, winding streets suffused in slop, surely one of the most odoriferous of European capitals. Now there are gleaming new buildings and broad avenues. Jammed with traffic, of course. The Paris of old was much quieter.

I dispatch JoeL off to canvass among the many Romani who plague Paris in the hopes that he may pick up a lead and teleport myself to the Ritz.

Inaugurated in 1898 by the Swiss-French businessman, César Ritz, it is reputed to be the finest hotel in the world. Overlooking the Place Vendôme, the Ritz boasts (almost insufferably) one hundred thirty-five rooms and forty suites, a sumptuous one of which is reserved in the name of L.O. Key.

Loki. Palamides has obviously not lost his famous sense of mischief, defying the spirit, if not the letter, of Our Father’s edict to cease using any of our past gods’ names.

I gaze fondly upon myself in one of the suites’ many gilt-edged mirrors and hasten to the Salon Psyché, overlooking the lovely Jardin d’Eté and beautifully adorned in Aubusson tapestries. Awaiting me are the Big Seven of National Devils (I am the Big Eighth): Alrinach of Japan, Braathwaate of Canada, Tenebrion of Russia, Mandra of Germany, Cheitan of Italy, Ascaroth of Britain and, of course, Palamides.

(The other most important National Devils from India and China are absent due to a war between their two countries. Africa, though a continent, is, of course, not represented. People just die there.)

An attractive female demon server hands me a pitcher of Beefeaters, which I host high in greeting to my compatriots and down in a single gargantuan gulp. Idle cocktail chatter ensues, giving me the opportunity to study my host. Palamides’ expression is difficult to read. Light streaming through the windows from the Jardin illuminates him from below so that his nose seems curiously elongated and a curious sort of benevolence plays across his now quite normal-looking mouth. Indeed, Palamides has assumed a remarkably benign persona, that of a handsome, slender, aristocratic but intellectual-looking Frenchman who appears to be around sixty. But my observation time is limited for the great devil strides directly up to me.

“Welcome, Roger. That is your name at the moment, isn’t it?”

“Yes, M. Palamides. Roger O. Thornhill.”

“ROT, for short.”

“Quite so,” I smile.

“Do you ever wonder what happened to your predecessor, the first American devil?”

Actually I have not. “Bechet, wasn’t it? I assume he got bored and was reassigned to something a bit more exciting.”

Palamides raises his expressive black eyebrows. “And what could conceivably be more exciting than being the American Devil? Especially now that Our Lord is planning to squash all Americans into opabinia? No, Our Lord sacked him and put him into indefinite suspension.”

“From whence he just recently freed me,” I say, still smiling. “But why? I remember Bechet as being quite competent. A little dull perhaps. . .”

Palamides chuckles. “Well, he ceased being dull. After World War II, Bechet went completely American cowboy. Moved to Texas, wore ten gallon hats, and became an oil gazillionaire.”

“Oh, I can see why Our Lord would not like that, given His position on the environment.”

“As my old friend Clemenceau remarked, ‘America is the only nation in history which has managed to pass directly from barbarism to degeneration without the customary interval of civilization.’”

Experiencing an untowards impulse to defend America, I reply, “And, as I believe John Adams observed, the French are prone to ‘niddle, piddle, fiddle and diddle.’”

At this point a tinkling crystal bell put an end to the conversation. We sit down to eat and watch a diminishing haunch of beef go round the table. Demon servers ply us with trays of preserves, au gratin potatoes, foie gras, tortellini, boiled shrimp, heritage tomatoes, and white asparagus. Much chomping, slurping and belching ensues. Our drink pitchers are kept full; a different wine accompanies each of thirty-seven courses. Shortly after we attack the cheese and dessert trays, Palamides holds up a hand for silence.

“As you know, we are gathered here at Our Father’s command to discuss the future of America. Who would like to go first?”

Alrinach of Japan rises and beams at the assembly. I reflect that he is generally regarded as the Devil Who Presides Over Shipwrecks. Curiously, he has adopted a persona that resembles nothing so much as the American World War II caricatures of the Japanese soldier: horn rimmed glasses over squinty eyes, enormous buck teeth, and a general demeanor of good-humored menace.

“The corrupt Americans must be eliminated immediately,” he cries to a general chorus of “here heres.”

“But won’t that affect the world economy?” asks Palamides in a reasonable tone, befitting his chosen role of anti-Devil’s Advocate.

“So what,” interjects Tenebrion of Russia (the Devil of Darkness). “We certainly don’t care about the world economy and, frankly, without the Americans there would be much more to go around for everyone else.”

“I agree,” says Mandra of Germany refuting his title as the Devil of Discord. “But we must think of a way of exterminating them that doesn’t affect America’s productive capacity. If we do that, we can simply invite in a horde of Asian guest workers to take over the whole kit and kaboodle.”

“A nice little plague should do it,” observes Cheitan of Italy (the Devil of Noxious Vapors). “It did wonders for Florence in the fifteenth century.”

“A plague that doesn’t spread elsewhere, at least for the moment, until we decide what to do about the rest of the human race,” drawls Ascaroth of Britain (the Devil of Informers and Spies).

“I don’t know,” says Braathwaate of Canada (the Devil of Ignorance). “Americans are much like Canadians, only not nearly as nice. But still they are genetically intertwined in such a way that an American-specific plague would be almost impossible to engineer.”

“Agreed,” says Palamides. “Americans are such mongrels that they are genetically connected to the entire rest of humanity.” He turns to me. “What say you, Loki?”

I am shocked by his use of my god’s name but Palamides hastens to add, “It’s alright. Our Father is rethinking this democratization nonsense and has allowed us to return to our old names for the time being.”

I take a judicious pause. “Rather than outright extermination, I think it may be possible to change them.”

“Into what?” roars Mandra.

“Into something other than self-centered, self-righteous, born again polluting poltroons,” I say evenly. “As you know, Our Father has left the final recommendation as to what to do with the Americans up to me and, quite frankly, I haven’t made up my mind.”

“Is it that rumpled?” asks Ascaroth sweetly.

“I have set into motion a plot to assassinate the president of the United States who, I know you all agree, has to go. Beyond that, I may wish to eliminate the entire government – Congress, Supreme Court, military, civil service and so on. A mere several million people, preserving most of the population, undeserving though they may be.”

“And then?” snarls Alrinach.

“I will personally strangle their last politician with the entrails of their last priest and then see how they fend for themselves.”

“Does Our Father know of your plans?” Palamides, though plainly shocked by my vehemence, asks mildly.

“Not yet,” I lie.

“Does Melchom?”

“No.”

Palamides gazes around the table. “In that case, I suggest that the rest of us file a telereport with Melchom, disassociating ourselves from Loki’s witless scheme.”

“Even before I transmit my own recommendations?” I try to sound disappointed.

“You are, of course, free to do so now,” replies Palamides frostily.

“But there are subtleties, permutations, nuances, niceties, strategies, subterfuges that I must incorporate before notifying Melchom.”

“Too bad,” grunts Ascaroth. You should have thought about that before blurting out your bull, betises, follies and flapdoodles to us.”

“As you wish,” I incline my head in a slight bow of resignation. Inwardly, of course, I am jubilant. What I have outlined to this batch of boobs does not in the slightest resemble my actual provisional plans for America, duly approved in secret by Our Father.

I rise to leave. Palamides puts a hand gently on my arm. “I must speak with you privately about another matter.”

“Of course. My suite?”

We repair to my rooms and I order us several gallons of alcoholic refreshment (single malt scotch for me, Pernod for Palamides). The French Devil paces the room with uncharacteristic restiveness. I reflect that he has been associated with Our Father much longer than I. Once I recall inadvertently overhearing the two of them converse familiarly about the event that scientists now refer to as the Ordovician Extinction, which occurred four hundred forty million years ago, give or take a week.

“I won’t apologize for cutting you off so abruptly. Even though I know that you have been given the gift of understanding science, I feel that your plans are decidedly wrongheaded.”

“No apologies necessary. We all serve Our Father in our own ways. In fact, a choice of directions is perhaps what He would like from us.”

“But what I wanted to talk to you about,” Palamides says hastily, “is the Teddy Teawater investigation. Our Father has authorized me to impart to you a dreadful secret.”

So Palamides is in direct contact with Lucifer. I am not surprised. Our Lord is, after all, the King of Cunning.

“And that is?”

“Teddy Teawater is not a demon.”

This, I admit, comes as an enormous gork to me. How could someone with her evident powers not be a demon? The only other beings who possess anything like them are. . . .

“You’re not suggesting that she is a devil?”

Palamides looks miserably distressed. “No, I’m not suggesting that at all.”

“Then what is she?”

He sighs deeply. “There is another class of beings altogether that only Our Father and a few of his oldest creations know of. You have heard of them but are doubtless unaware that they differ from us. They are called the Erinyes.”

“But I always thought that they, like the Moirai, are of our ilk.”

“Neither are, I’m afraid. Both serve Ananke, Necessity, not Our Father, who has always opposed Necessity finding it, I am convinced, quite unnecessary.”

I recall with discomfort the words that Aeschylus (a literary demon if there ever was one) placed in the voices of the Erinyes: “We claim to be just and righteous. No wrath from us will come to the one who holds out clean hands, and he will go through life unharmed; but whoever kills and hides his blood-stained hands, as avengers of bloodshed we appear against him to the end, presenting ourselves as incorruptible witnesses for the dead.”

“But what are these beings avenging? Surely those poor people that Teddy Teawater murdered in San Francisco had done nothing to merit such awful retribution.”

Palamides shrugs gracefully. “That I don’t know, although you might want to follow up with the police there. What is obvious is that unless she has gone completely mad, at least one of the Erinyes is mightily riled based on what she thinks is proper justification.”

“By the way, do you or does Our Father know which of the Erinyes Teddy is?”

Palamides sighs. “Not that it makes much difference but Our Lord identified her as Alecto.”

“What does He want me to do?”

“It is, of course, not my place to issue you instructions but He did indicate that you are to meet with Him twelve hours from now and you are not to breathe a single syllable of this development to Melchom. Don’t ask me why. In the meantime, I would like to make amends for that dreadful luncheon we just consumed but, as you might imagine, I had to make concessions to the uncouth palates of our compatriots. Still, I recall you as something of a gourmand. Remember those Persian stuffed larks we used to devour so ravenously?”

I nod. “And the olives. One can understand how the entirety of Athenian civilization was founded on the olive.”

“I have taken the liberty of ordering a light repast prepared by the Ritz’ finest chef which we can both enjoy while I enlighten you about the French.”

Although I don’t in the slightest trust him, I do respect Palamides’ supple intellect and recall that he is the longest-serving of all the National Devils, having been appointed to assist Richelieu and then Mazarin in their efforts to make coherent the French nation.

We relax as five congenial demon servers enter my suite and unveil a series of gastronomic delights: fillet of pike in sauce Nantua, a lamb gigot, a truite au bleu, artichokes stuffed with truffles, three different types of foie gras, a daube provençale, and seventeen varieties of cheeses. All accompanied by Bordeaux of the finest vintage as well as several magnums of the rare 1947 Veuve Clicquot.

Settling comfortably in one of the plush divans, Palamides smiles at me companionably. “Aside from never enjoying a meal such as this, there are many profound differences between the French and the Americans. Let me illustrate by telling you a French joke.”

“By all means.” As I was soon to learn, Palamides’ English leaves almost everything to be desired.

“When the human body was created, all its parts wanted to be the head.

THE BRAIN SAID:

Since I control all and that I think for everyone I should be the head.

THE FEET SAID:

Since we transport the body where it wishes it and also allow him to do what the brain wants, should be to us the head.

THE HANDS SAID:

Since we do all the work and earn money to maintain the body, us

should be the head.

And so on for the HEART, the EYES, the EARS and the LUNGS.

Then the ASSHOLE was made to hear and asked to be the head.

The other parts of the body burst out laughing at the idea that an ASSHOLE can be head.

The ASSHOLE was put in anger: it was closed again on itself and refused to function.

Soon the BRAIN became feverish, the EYES crossed and became vitreous.

Two small FEET go, the HANDS hung without force and the HEART and LUNGS fought to survive.

Thus all begged the BRAIN to be let bend and to allow the ASSHOLE

to be the head.

THUS WAS MADE all the parts of the body did their work while the ASSHOLE directed all and dealt mainly with the shit like any head worthy of this name.

MORAL:

It is by no means necessary to be a BRAIN to become the HEAD. A simple ASSHOLE has more chances.

JUST LOOK AROUND YOU TO BE CONVINCED OF IT!”

“Palamides, I not only haven’t the vaguest idea what you just said, I don’t see that it could possibly be funny.”

Palamides looks abashed. “Pardon, my English is very horrible. Let me try again with another joke:

“When Charles De Gaulle retired from public life, the British ambassador and his wife threw a dinner party in his honor.

At the dinner table the ambassador’s wife was talking with Madame De Gaulle: ‘Your husband has been such a prominent public figure, such a commanding presence on the French and international scene for so many years! How quiet retirement will seem in comparison. What are you most looking forward to in these retirement years?’

“‘A penis,’ replied Madame De Gaulle.

“A huge hush fell over the table. Everyone had heard her answer and no one knew what to say next.

“Le Grand Charles leaned over to his wife and said: ’Ma cherie, I believe ze English pronounce zat word, ‘appiness.’”

I smile weakly. “But how does that joke illustrate differences between the French and the Americans?”

“For one thing, no American would ever try to tell a joke that has a punch line in French. But let me give you one further illustration from my old friend, the duc de la Rochefoucauld: ‘Gratitude is merely the secret hope of further favors.’”

“Ah, yes,” I murmur, not in the slightest seeing Palamides’ point but yearning to shut him up. Fortunately he consumes the last morsels of cheese and foie gras and bids me a smiling adieu.

After Palamides departs, I receive further confirmation of the Erinyes’ involvement in the San Francisco murders from JoeL who returns from a long day with his fellow Romani demons.

“She’s definitely not one of us,” he says. “Some of my friends have crossed paths with her before and describe the experience as icky, irksome and unlovely. They would know if she were a demon but her powers far surpass ours and maybe even yours.”

“For example?”

“She can summon up a storm at will, make volcanoes erupt, cause airplanes to drop out of the sky, sink ships. You name it,” says JoeL, more morosely even than usual.

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